- The German Moudjahid and the Danish PrinceBoualem Sansal’s Le Village de l’Allemand
There is no shortage of memory in Algeria, and no shortage of books about Algeria that take memory as their primary object.1 The past two decades have seen a growing number of memoirs, novels, and films stage returns to the colonial past and the transition to independence through a distinctly memorial lens.2 Contemporary authors are using the past as an antidote to press headlines that numb an increasingly fatigued public and export a particularly bloody postcard of life in Algeria. By reframing the present through a messy and at times contradictory past, these narratives challenge mythologized versions of independence that the state works hard to maintain. This literary tactic not only reminds readers of a time when Algerians worked together to oppose colonialism, it also paints a portrait of French abuse that, in its resemblance to domestic models of state terror, implicates the current leadership.
Artists and scholars have also found more constellational ways of describing contemporary Algeria. A new concept in Maghrebi studies is that of the “transnational” or “postnational” Maghreb. Attention to globalization, nomadism, immigration, diaspora, exile, “Empire,” and “the Multitude” have fueled alternative approaches to the literary and filmic works of North African artists, situating them in “transnational comparative frameworks where entire regions have to be configured as unified objects of study” (Talbayev 360). A thick spot on the increasingly web-like fabric of Maghrebi cultural studies is the question of Jewish history in twentieth-century North Africa. The Maghreb had for centuries been home to important Jewish communities, and during the Second World War, much of the region [End Page 123] was occupied by the Wehrmacht, entangling it in devastating ways with the Nazi Holocaust. In addition to drawing these direct historical links, growing bodies of research and fiction have made lateral, comparative moves from North African to Holocaust history, suggesting that a shift from a nation-or identity-based approach to what Michael Rothberg has termed a “multidirectional” one offers the potential for a richer study of both histories.3
But evoking the Holocaust in a comparative register is a move that carries with it a certain amount of risk. Rothberg has argued that the Holocaust, like all historical events, is indeed unique, but comparison neither impoverishes its import nor diminishes its significance:
[W]hile it is essential to understand the specificity of the Nazi genocide (as of all events), separating it off from other histories of collective violence—and even from history as such—is intellectually and politically dangerous. The dangers of the uniqueness discourse are that it potentially creates a hierarchy of suffering (which is morally offensive) and removes that suffering from the field of historical agency (which is both morally and intellectually suspect).(8–9)
Rather than bracket the Holocaust from other histories (or History), Rothberg considers how Holocaust memory and other post-war collective memories—namely, decolonization—might be thought together. Against an understanding of collective memory as a “zero-sum struggle over scarce resources,” he describes a multidirectional relationship between memories “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross referencing, and borrowing” (2–3). Scientists use a concept first coined by the nineteenth-century philosopher George Henry Lewes called “emergence” to explain what happens when simple agents operating in an environment display complex and unexpected behaviors as a result of their proximity to one another (what Lewes called the “co-operation of things of unlike kinds” ). Memories seem to work this way, too. The productive entangling of unlikely memorial threads is memory’s multidirectionality at work, and recent turns in Algerian fiction to Holocaust memory show a willingness on the part of authors to blend “things of unlike kinds” as a way of undoing the tired repetition of the same.
Boualem Sansal’s Le Village de l’Allemand links the Algerian War for Independence to the Holocaust through the figure of a Nazi who fled to Algeria, fought with the fln during the War for Independence, and died in the 1990s when his village was attacked by Islamist insurgents. The Holocaust, the War for Independence, French banlieues, and the horrors of Algeria’s...